School Choice

I Had to Go All the Way to Ireland to See That We're Getting Separation of Church and State Right in Our Schools

Sometimes it’s worth looking at our education system through the lens of other nations (I swear I am not going to write about Finland!). We spend a lot of time talking about what is wrong with American education. On a recent trip to Ireland, I was able to reflect on something we get right: the separation of church and state in our public schools. Did you know that the Catholic Church runs almost all (over 90 percent) of the public schools in Ireland? Even more extraordinary is that religion can be considered a primary admissions requirement, something referred to as the “baptism barrier.” This means that if the Catholic Church does not baptize your child, you may have a hard time finding a seat in the public schools, particularly in and around Dublin where schools are oversubscribed. Equally pertinent to families who are not Catholic is the indoctrination of their children, who have to spend at least 30 minutes learning about the Catholic religion daily; a reality that many parents, rightfully, find disquieting. (In theory, students are supposed to be able to opt out of this religious education; however, in practice, a lack of staffing makes separating students often impossible.) Considering Ireland’s history under English-Protestant rule, it’s not surprising that a majority Catholic nation would reclaim its religious identity by infusing one of the most important aspects of public life with it. But, times have certainly changed. More than 15 percent of the current Irish population does not identify as Catholic. Even though Catholics are still a considerable majority, church attendance is at an all-time low. In a country, where historically, 90 percent of people attended church weekly, the shift to 30 percent, according to NPR, is considerable. Same-sex marriage, an institution not accepted by the Catholic powers that be, was recently passed by 62 percent of the vote.

Parents Should Have Public School Choice

Last week, I had a conversation with a Catholic monk who teaches at an all-boys Catholic school. He said, “It makes perfect sense that parents should have public school choice and I am not alone in this view among Catholic educators.” Pretty reasonable guy. He understood that though it was not in the interest of the Catholic stronghold to support public school choice, it was in the interest of the kids. Amen to that. Questions being raised by Ireland’s immigrant population and those who do not identify with Catholicism are undeniably important (and can certainly be paralleled to racial divisions here in the States).
  • How do you prevent a sense of marginalization when Catholic students are clearly receiving preferential treatment (i.e. when bias, implicit bias, and property tax-based school funding preference the education of White U.S. children)?
  • Why should a child have no choice but to exclusively—emphasis on exclusively, as learning about world religions makes a whole lot of sense—learn about a religion that has no relevance to his or her culture (i.e. the White, male, Anglo-Saxon cannon generally taught in U.S. schools) in order to get access to nearby public education?
For a peek into the personal struggles of families who choose not to baptize their children or practice a non-Catholic religion, read an excellent article from The New York Times.

Change Is on the Horizon

Though it can’t come soon enough for families left out of the prevailing school structure, change seems to be on the horizon. Educate Together, an expanding network of public schools that is nondenominational and “guarantees equality of access and esteem to children irrespective of their social, cultural, or religious background,” is gaining traction and support. In many ways, Educate Together is similar to public charter schools in the U.S. They are filling a public school need demanded by families who are not being served well by their existing schools. However, they operate on a first-come first-serve model instead of on an open lottery system. This has recently led to parents lining up outside of an Educate Together school hours early to get their child a seat, indicative of the lengths families will go to for a nondenominational choice. Public schools are meant to serve all students equally and be responsive to the public good. Here in the U.S., we are certainly working towards that, particularly for students of color, low-income students, and English language-learners. We have miles to go before we sleep. But, on religious issues, we can claim more progressive ground. The U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in landmark cases, prevents our government from granting favorable treatment to students based on religion and establishing religious schools. By separating church and state in our schools, while protecting individual expression of religion, we teach tolerance and acceptance of difference, as well as a respect for the religious freedom this country was built upon.

Here's Where it Gets Fuzzy

One area where the separation of church and state gets fuzzy in America (and perhaps where the Irish religious schools question should serve as a cautionary tale) is through the school voucher movement. I deeply support public school choice. High-quality charter schools offer opportunities to many students, particularly those straightjacketed by their zip codes. I am, however, troubled by the voucher movement that can allow for the creep of religion into public school funding. There are currently 12 states and the District of Columbia who have some type of voucher program, and many states have movements working towards them. For those who are not familiar, a voucher allows families to pay for a private school with public funding. That means that public tax money can go towards religious education. According to the Department of Education, more than 80 percent of students who attend private schools go to religiously affiliated institutions. And unlike in public schools (public charters included, contrary to many critics’ claims), private schools are allowed to deny admission to a student based on religion, disabilities, and socioeconomics. Therefore, my praise is also my caution. The separation of church and state within our public schools must be celebrated. We should talk about its value more because it is easy to take for granted the things that we get right. And, that can be dangerous. We should celebrate our wins so that we are aware enough of their nuances to protect them.  
Katelyn Silva
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...

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